I’ve said this before, and I don’t mind saying it again, the G.C. Laha establishment is like a pilgrimage for artists. Many artists these days might not understand why I’m saying this. It’s not surprising that they can’t. After all, they are still young while I’ve just stepped into my 91st year. In my long life as an artist, my connections with G.C. Laha, too, goes back a long time. It is on the basis of this experience that I call the place a pilgrimage for artists.
My journeys to the shop began even before I had become an artist. It was possibly in the year 1928. I was in school and completely addicted to painting at that time. I would stay up for nights on end and draw, going against the will of my family. It was during that time that I became acquainted with a boy from our neighborhood. He was a student of the Indian Art School and used to paint. I can’t remember his name anymore. But I went up to him to find out from whom I could take training in art. He told me of a good book on learning painting written by V.R. Foster had been published abroad. it contained detailed and illustrated instructions on the art of painting. The book, he told me, was available at G.C. Laha.
That was the first time I went to G.C. Laha — to buy a book. And that was the first time I saw Girinbabu. His full name was Girindra Coomar Laha, and it was after him that the shop was named G.C. Laha Private Limited. As soon as I named the book, he asked one of his men, Nandababu, to fetch it. I leafed through the book and found that it had instructions on drawing everything from trees and leaves to birds, beasts and humans. To begin properly, I also bought myself an exercise book with thick sheets of paper to draw in. By then I realised that I needed pencils, but I had no clue about the type of pencils I would require. When I asked, Nandababu got me a 2B and a 6B pencil on the instructions of Girinbabu. He told me that I would need the 6B pencils to draw dark, black lines. Inevitably, after drawing for a few days I wanted to start painting, but then, I didn’t know what colours I would require to paint. So there I was, back at the G.C. Laha shop at Dharamtalla. I asked for cheap water colours and as usual, Girinbabu handed me a box of water colours and said, “Start off with these. I’ll give you tube colours later.” So I had finally got myself the colours, but now there were the brushes to buy. I couldn’t even think of buying good brushes, which were very expensive. So I asked for a cheaper variety. But I had no idea of what were the numbers I would require. However, Girinbabu was there to solve all my problems. He passed me a number 1 and a number 3 sable-hair brush and said, “These will suffice for now. I’ll give you other varieties when you need them.” With that in mind, I went home and started painting pictures. So this is how I began painting — not with training from a teacher, but with help from Girinbabu and with materials from his shop.
Even before I sat for my Matriculation exams, plans to put me into a medical school were afoot at home. But I didn’t agree to it at all, since I wanted to join an art school and become an artist. To have my way, I even ran away from home and faced many hardships. Finally, one day my father agreed to let me enroll in an art school. I couldn’t join the Government Art School on Chowringhee, as the students had gone on a strike and the school was closed. This was around 1930. Hindusthan Building was in the Dharamtalla area, close to the Calcutta Municipal Corporation. The office and the school of the Indian Society of Oriental Art, established by Abanindranath Tagore, was on the second floor of this building. I joined there.
I wanted to learn sculpture and the sculpture teacher at the Society in those days was Giridhari Mahapatra. He was a skilled artisan trained in the old traditions of temple architecture in Orissa. I started training under him. Once he gave me a block of wood and said, “Cut this.” He didn’t tell me what figure he wanted me to carve out of the wood. When I asked him, he said, “Nothing. Just keep chipping off from it.” I began on his instructions and after some time it became so small that I couldn’t hew it further even pressing it down with my foot. When I finally asked him about this he said, “You’re even better than me at this. What will I teach you?” Anyway, one day he told me that it would take 14 to 15 years to learn sculpture. I was very disheartened and I walked up to the painting teacher Kshitindranath Majumdar and explained my predicament to him.
He took me in as his pupil and I started learning to paint with water colours under him. I would use Monkton Kent paper for my drawings.
In those days each sheet of paper used to cost about four or five annas. But Kshitin babu did not like the paper. He advised me to buy Watman handmade paper; from G.C. Laha. Each Watman sheet used to cost a rupee then. I was just a student f and in no way I could buy such expensive paper. Finally I managed to save up 1 enough money to buy the paper from G.C. Laha after three months.
There’s another reason why I call G.C. Laha’s shop a pilgrimage. Most artists frequented the shop since they had no equal in terms of area anywhere in Kolkata. I’ve had the good fortune of seeing many great artists here and even meeting some of them. One day I saw this huge man, built like a wrestler, enter the shop. When I inquired I was told that he was the famous sculptor and painter Debiprasad Roy Choudhury. I had seen his work printed in the magazines [Prabasi] and [Bharatvarsha]. Telling him this, I bent down and touched his feet in respect. From then to the last day of his life, my relationship with him remained intact. It was here that I met other greats like Atul Bose, Satish Singha and Hemen Majumder and many others.
I can remember many such incidents. Let me share a few with you. Once, when I’d gone to buy colours from the shop, I saw Hemen Majumder. He was talking to Girinbabu. There was something he was feeling a bit hesitant about. Girinbabu assured him that there was no need for him to feel reticent, he could say whatever he wanted to. Relieved, Hemenbabu revealed that he required a Roman canvas, but didn’t have the money. The size he needed was 30/20. Girinbabu asked Nandababu to check if that particular size was available. After some time Nandababu said that there was a 36/24 available. When Girinbabu asked this to be handed over to Hemenbabu, he said, “As it is I don’t have money, if I take lager size, it’ll be even costlier.” To this Girinbabu replied, “Don’t worry about the price, we’ll see about that later. By the way, do you have paint and brushes?” A bit ashamed, Hemenbabu said, “I normally use Artist Quality paints, but these have been finished a long time ago. The brushes have mostly lost their shape with use.” Hearing this, Girinbabu handed the artist six tubes of Artist Quality Paints and brushes numbered 1, 2 and 3.
Later I’ve even seen Girinbabu giving away Mastic varnish to Hemendranath Majumdar, knowing fully well the artist didn’t have money to buy for it.
Hemenbabu had painted a beautiful portrait of Girinbabu’s wife. So, whenever he mentioned money after buying things from the shop, Girinbabu would smile and say, “I owe you some money for painting that portrait. Just take whatever you require, please don’t hesitate.” There are other incidents like this which I can never forget. Here, at G.C. Laha, I’ve seen what a wonderfully cordial relationship Girinbabu shared with many greats of the art world.
I returned to Calcutta from foreign shores in 1956 and joined as a professor at the Government Art School. As soon as I took charge, I put into place some new rules for the improvement of the school, administering the institution according to some regulations and for this, I was named the Army Commander. One of the teachers there was Gopal Ghosh. It so happened that one day I found him in the school garden, observing a flower with great attention. When I went forward and asked him what it was, he revealed that he was actually observing an insect sucking nectar from the flower. Why didn’t he paint it, I asked him. He replied, “I don’t have paint, brushes or paper.” I told him to go to G.C. Laha on Dharamtalla Street. I would telephone them and ask them to arrange for all that he required. As soon as I called them, it was all made ready. So, after remaining static for a while, Gopalbabu’s brush began working on the canvas again. And it was at this time that he worked on his famous flower series. So G.C. Laha had a crucial role to play in bringing Gopalbabu back into the world of painting.
After Girindra Coomar Laha, Bishwababu (Bishwanath Laha), his eldest son, became the overall boss of the shop. I was on friendly terms with him and we would discuss so many things over the phone, as well as when we met up. Even he left us for his heavenly abode one day. Since then, his brother Pashupatibabu too has been a good friend — in fact I still have Watman sheets I brought from their shop, though some have been used up. Whenever I look at them, many fond memories come to mind and I feel very nostalgic about the place. There’s another thing which many might not know. The beautiful brasswork railing on the shop counter was actually gifted by the Winsor & Newton company. After all, right since its inception, the shop has sold the products of this world famous brand. This is a matter of great pride. I offer my best wishes to this great organisation of the Bengalees in its centenary year.